How Do You Think? Part 2: The Challenge of Our Contested Will

How Do You Think? Part 2: The Challenge of Our Contested Will

Consciousness is not so much a stable state as a constant internal battle. We learn this from neurobiology, but in a way, we have always known it to be true. Princeton Professor Michael Graziano’s book Consciousness and the Social Brain opens with a description of the contest for our attention. Environmental factors attract our attention, but we have some capacity to ignore them or focus elsewhere.

A Constant Contest

Judaism also addresses this contest, but adds a moral valence to the struggle. Our rabbinic texts note that when the Torah says that God shaped the human, the verb וייצר is spelled with two yuds, as if to say that there are two types of instinct, which they called יצר הטוב ויצר הרע. We have an inclination toward virtue, and another toward vice.

The thing is that these competing inclinations are not entirely binary. A desire for pleasure can lead one into either constructive or destructive behaviors. An impulse that is good in one way can be bad in another and vice versa. And good impulses – perhaps to submit one’s will to the divine will – can lead to a crippling meekness.

The Torah is filled with stories that show characters struggling to balance between different impulses, most famously with Abraham. In one moment, he is audacious and assertive, arguing on behalf of strangers; in another he is meek and submissive, accepting the divine command to sacrifice his son.

The Talmud has a story about the time they trapped the Evil Inclination and tied it down with sturdy ropes. Seemed like a good idea, but then the world ground to a halt—no sex, no kids, no work, no food, just everyone passively waiting to see what would come next. The tension within our soul is an engine for action, with inhibition necessary to keep us good, but impulse required to get us off the couch.

Dynamism, Conflict and Change

In other words, the Jewish view of consciousness is not of homeostasis but of dynamism, conflict and change. Each moment, we choose whether to be selfish or kind, impulsive or reflective. These impulses are not an unfortunate side effect but are rather the essence of freedom and of responsibility. Perhaps it would be overstating things to call it entirely free will. We are creatures of habit, influenced by habitat and who knows what else. But somewhere in there is an element of freedom.

This belief in free will is often questioned by neurobiologists such as Robert Sapolsky in Behave. He mocks people who believe in a homunculus or little man that sits in your skull calling the shots. Professor Graziano doesn’t mock. Yes, he knows that the conscious mind is only part of the self, but that doesn’t mean there is no role left for the conscious self to play. We choose to be here, to care, and to act on that sense of caring. And in so doing the self can become greater than the sum of its parts.


This brings us to my final point, transcendence, and here again I find Dr. Graziano helpful. His book talks about the social mind—that is, we are not little islands of consciousness, but interactions. We maintain a schema—a mental conception—of who we are and what we are thinking, and also schemas of what others around us are thinking. And not only around us—also people who lived long ago, or are far away, or who do not yet exist.

In Graziano’s chapter on “Some Spiritual Matters,” he speaks about how ascribing consciousness to another person is not categorically different from ascribing consciousness to another type of animal, or even to an inanimate object, or to a deity. It is an ascription, a schema, a projection–but that doesn’t make it unreal, since after all, even our sense of ourselves at this very moment is a schema.

Does Judaism teach that we can ascribe consciousness to access the mind of God? Medieval Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides were uncomfortable with the Bible’s anthropomorphic images of God, especially descriptions of the divine body. But as Rambam notes, descriptions of a divine voice, or divine emotions such as anger, are no less problematic than is the divine hand. All imply a limited being, and God cannot be limited.

It is undeniable that Jewish thinking about thinking—about consciousness—is to a large extent about transcending one’s limited state of thought and connecting to a much larger universe of meaning. We study and practice and pray for the sake of linking mind to mind, and thus becoming something far more meaningful and enduring than our little old selves.

We recognize that God is not just a projection of human experience and desire. Yet we persist in efforts to glimpse an ultimate mind, a collective consciousness, the very source of life. That, I think, is what’s on the Jewish mind. We are embodied, we are conflicted, we are limited; and yet we also have the capacity to transcend our individual limits, to form a community both horizontal and vertical, uniting across time and space and together connecting to God.

(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. At the Jewish Center of Princeton, NJ on May 14, 2019, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, the Pearl Resnick Dean of the JTS Rabbinical School, joined Michael S.A. Graziano, PhD, a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University, to explore the topic “How Do You Think? A Jewish & Scientific Exploration of Consciousness.” Rabbi Nevins’ presentation has been excerpted in two parts).


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